Giving Us Courage: The Political Rhetoric of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Daniel Gorman Jr.

Abstract


Although Franklin Roosevelt is described as a great presidential communicator, the precise details of his rhetoric – his use of multiple media outlets, his revision of speechwriters’ material to match his own voice, his ability to espouse detailed and literate comments on the spot – usually escape close analysis. Historians cite his great speeches, but rarely consider why the speeches are great, or what effects they had on Roosevelt’s audience. This paper takes a critical look at Roosevelt’s rhetoric, as represented by five key speeches. Special attention is paid to literary devices and rhetorical effects, developing a portrait of Roosevelt as a talented political actor. Interviews with Americans who actually lived through the Roosevelt era supplement the main argument, grounding the literary analysis in the context of oral history. Brief biographical incidents are also touched upon, particularly FDR’s habit from childhood onward of hiding his true feelings and maintaining an eternally positive façade. Indeed, this constant, enigmatic performance defined Roosevelt’s political career, as he presented himself as an active yet approachable president, willing to lead and keep the people informed of his actions (the anti-Herbert Hoover). Through constant cultivation and revision of his rhetoric, Roosevelt developed a winning political formula – an aura of positive determination without any hints of condescension. By looking at Roosevelt the communicator and the effects his words had upon ordinary Americans, it becomes clear that the right “few words” can greatly inspire a suffering populace.

Keywords


Roosevelt; Rhetoric; Speechwriting

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